my ipad (and iphone) to scrivener workflow

April 28, 2010 | 38 Comments

(UPDATE: You might be interested in my more recent post on iPad writing apps. Some can sync with Scrivener 2.0.)

Despite my initial concerns that the iPad seemed geared for consuming rather than creating, I’m finding it can be a great tool for capturing, and even developing, some ideas. As I hoped in that same post, developers are coming along and making some great tools. (One note: everything I describe here can also work on an iPhone, and I’m using it that way too.)

While it looks like Scrivener isn’t going to be an iPad app anytime soon, the way the iPad fits in my workflow, I’m not sure I will need the full feature set of Scrivener on it anyway. What I need is a workflow that allows me to capture ideas, research, and some initial drafts that can be easily transported to Scrivener for further work.

This week, I’ve shaped the workflow, and I think it’s going to work out great. Here are the pieces:

  1. Words are captured in SimpleNote. (The iPad version of this was approved late Monday, and I experienced glee when I saw it.) When it is a note that I want to indicate as something current, I append 3-5 Q’s at the end of the title, depending on how current or important it is. Since there aren’t any words in English that have more than one Q in a row, this makes it easy to find these notes later, and the Q key is always easy to get to up there in the corner of even an iPhone keypad. (I learned this trick from Merlin Mann in this MacPowerUsers episode. Brilliant.) Note that in SimpleNote, the first line of text becomes the title.
  2. All my SimpleNote notes sync with Notational Velocity on my Mac. David Sparks had a great post on SimpleNote and Notational Velocity yesterday…read it.
  3. Notational Velocity saves all my notes as text files. This is critical and can be set in the preferences. It also means that all your notes can be searched via spotlight, so it’s a handy setting.

  4. I set up a smart folder to show my all my “qqq” and up notes. This is easy to do via the Finder menu. For now, I have a link to this folder residing in sidebar of my Finder, but I might drag it to the dock too.
  5. When I’m ready to work in Scrivener, I open the smart folder and drag the relevant files into the research or drafts folder. And my words have arrived through the ether with minimal thought or effort on my part. It is, dare I say, magical. The files are there and waiting for me when I need them.

There are two things that make me giddy about this workflow. First, sync happens. My thoughts move between devices, waiting right where I need them. I don’t have to plug in via USB and move docs around in a buried window in iTunes.

Second, SimpleNote functions as my primary notes reference and text capture app, which means less switching. The only thing it really lacks is a word count, but that’s not usually that important to me at the drafting stage anyway.

Enjoy, and if you figure out a way to make this workflow even better, let us all know in the comments.

  • Greg

    Have you checked out the ‘my writing nook’ app? It has a word count feature. I am thinking of going ahead and picking it up. It isn’t free but sounds promising.

  • John

    Thanks for the comment. I saw it. I looked at just about all of the writings apps. But I prefer the simple look and feel of SimpleNote combined with the effortless sync — no emailing files, no cut and pasting, etc. I’ll gladly sacrifice word count for that!

  • what do you like about simple note more than evernote?

  • John

    Well…because it’s simple. ๐Ÿ™‚ But also because of data accessibility…being able to store notes as text files offers a lot of flexibility. As Evernote is, I can’t drag a note from Evernote into Scrivener. Which, I might add, is silly in my opinion.

    I’m all about the concept of Evernote, but I’ve never been enamored with the actual execution of the concept.

  • I started using SimpleNote as well for my iPad and have been wondering about how to manage it with Yojimbo (which I like more than Evernote, not to mention I bought it) … turns out there is a SimpleNote to Yojimbo script and you can drag notes from Yojimbo into Scrivener!

    So many cool options!

  • John

    Thanks for your comment. I briefly tried that sync a few months ago, but it wasn’t reliable enough. You can’t delete an item, and I had problems with items duplicating.

    I’ll have to do a post on this, but I’m using Yojimbo and SimpleNote for different things now.

  • Thanks John … well then I think I might have to give Notational Velocity a shot then! Other friends of mine swear by it to keep things together. It’s great that we have so many ways of using the apps we have in new ways.

    As much as Evernote is great, I just never really liked the UI.

  • Timm


    This is seems like a wonderful setup, but when I tried to duplicate it, something broke down between NV and the smart folder. The folder remains empty and I cannot use spotlight to find the text files with “qqq” in the title of the notes.

  • John

    Double check step 3. By default, NV stores your notes in a database. You have to change it to store them as text files.


  • Timm


    Do you mean the setup should be such as:

    The only thing I noticed, and it may not mean anything, is that your screen shot has the Notational Velocity folder with a lowercase n, whereas mine is uppercase. In addition, I cannot find a folder on my MacBook Pro with that title.

  • Mike

    One thing I had to do was to move the nv folder out of the library and then into my documents folder. It worked right away then. For some reason when it was in the library folder it wouldn’t get recognized by spotlight

  • John

    Thanks Mike,
    I’m guess that is what will solve Timm’s issue. I put my Notational Velocity in my Dropbox for one more level of access and backup. That might be foolish because it’s now syncing in two directions, but I just have to be careful with it.

  • Timm

    John and Mike,

    Thanks for the assistance. Evidently, my problem is somewhere between steps #3 and #4. I found the folder and moved it out of the Library based upon Mike’s advice. The files are now Plain Text Documents, but still no success with Spotlight finding the files or a Smart Folder showing the files.

  • Timm

    It works! Brilliant idea. Well done to both of you.

  • John

    What was your fix? Just in case anyone else has trouble…

  • This is probably the single best post for writers’ workflow having to with the iPad. Why? Because there’s actual efficiency at heart here. Bottom line, iWork blows for file management, and Dropbox could solve all of this if more apps could edit Dropbox apps. If there is one, please let me know. Thus far, I agree, Simplenote works pretty good. I work on novel-length manuscripts, and I was psyched about sitting down with an iPad and knocking out some copy. But managing the file keeps becoming a nightmare. Looks like I’ll be writing whole chapters in Simplenote, folks. Lame. I really do appreciate this post, though. Again, the best on the Web currently. Most other reviews are too shallow and don’t talk about the syncing issues that are out there.

  • I’ve been playing with ReaddleDocs as a document manager, etc. It can tap into DropBox and Gmail to get files. If you have Pages for iPad you can bounce to Page pages from ReaddleDocs to edit. One snag I hit was that ReaddleDocs will send .doc files to Pages, but not .txt. I haven’t tested .rtf files though.

    Course if we had Scrivener for the iPad and it could use DropBox as a file source, it would be a done deal.

  • ia

    What a mess. Type into Evernote, paste into Scrivener. There is no step 3.

  • I’m using a similar workflow to ia. Type into Evernote, then copy n paste into Scrivener (or blog editor, or …).

    Evernote lets me also record audio bits or insert images from the Photo Albums, which is nifty, and then of course this new note is synched to all other devices running Evernote as an app, or the website.

    And, try as I may, I’ve only once or twice in a couple years come close to filling up my monthly data quota on my free account. I should probably upgrade to their paid service, just to support an excellent service, though I haven’t HAD to yet.

  • John

    Glad Evernote works for you. The concept of Evernote is great, but I’ve never fully adopted it — don’t even have it installed at this point. I don’t particularly like the interface, and I don’t like that I can’t drag and drop data.

    The power of SimpleNote/Notational Velocity comes in the ability to store all those notes as text files, where they are readily available to Finder/AppleScipt/Hazael, etc.

    I can also write drafts in MultiMarkDown in SimpleNote and my laptop automatically converts them to HTML when it sees them. See this post:

  • ia

    ?? But you CAN. Just select the text, click and hold and drag it over.

  • ia

    OK, well that post didn’t quite work out, and no EDIT function? I’d get a commenting system that allows me to edit or delete before!

    YOU SAID: “and I donโ€™t like that I canโ€™t drag and drop data.”

    ?? But you CAN. Just select the text, click and hold and drag it over.

  • Root

    …or just use Writeroom and sync your ‘notes’ with and that is of course one of the options in Scrivener’s Import menu.

    It seems very convoluted to have so many steps when there are so many apps with built in cloud sync.

    Also, many apps do open Dropbox files. For instance, I write mostly features in Scrivener, so I just export a scene in .fdx format and save it in my Dropbox. Then I open it in Dropbox on the iPad and choose ‘Open with…’ and there I click Scripts Pro – voilรก!

    (And, of course, even if it’s already done, I can’t avoid adding: Or use Evernote. The interface of the iPad app is great. And it’s very easy to create a Scrivener like ‘binder’ by using the notebook structure. Plus it syncs…yes, automatically…:-)

  • John

    Who knew that Evernote users had grown so passionate? If Evernote works for you…great. That’s what matters most, in my mind.

    Evernote doesn’t meet my particular needs, because:
    1) (I think this is the third time I’ve mentioned this in these comments, but…) I can’t drag and drop items from Evernote — Selecting text and dragging it is not what I mean. I often will have multiple notes that will end up in Scrivener projects — section drafts, research, brainstorms. I can’t drag a single note from Evernote into a folder in Scrivener, let alone multiple notes. I can drag 2, 3, or 15 text files in.
    2) Data in Evernote isn’t visible outside of Evernote. I can’t grab a hold of it with Hazel and do something to it…like process multimarkdown into HTML.

    And on the subject of WriteRoom … I’m a big fan. But…
    1) It’s not available for the iPad yet. (Yes I tried the iPhone app, and it’s not appealing to look at. ) That’s what prompted me to hunt down this workflow in the first place. I’m not the only based on how many are finding this post by searching for “WriteRoom for iPad” or “Scrivener for iPad”.
    2) The power of Scrivener is the Scrivenings. My project is broken into smaller bits of drafts or research notes. The SimpleText import, in my opinion, totally misses this, because a) you have to select items to import one at a time, and b) there is no way to sort what items are in there which gets messy if you have more than a dozen or so files. WriteRoom/SimpleText is great for capturing text, but not for managing it.
    3) Now, of course, SimpleText does utilize the beauty of simple text files. I believe I could setup SimpleText to sync with my Notational Velocity folder, so I could capture words in WriteRoom and then have access to them in SimpleNote or Notational Velocity, but that would get convoluted. ๐Ÿ˜‰
    4) On the subject, Jesse’s new app, PlainTxt holds some promise:

    SimpleNote *is* a cloud sync service. And because it’s only syncing text files, it’s fast fast fast over any connection. I open my app and it updates in a jiffy, even on 3g.

  • I completely agree with the sentiment here. The iPad can be a writer’s best friend, but not as a full blown composer. The iPad provides a platform for using Simplenote, Evernote, etc. almost anywhere you are. All good writing workflows must include an efficient “capture” step that imposes as little friction as possible on the inbound thoughts.

    I’ve personally found that the iPad is great for thought capturing and even light editing–mostly using Simplenote. I even find that I can really improve my writing by doing some amount of editing on the iPad because it tends to keep my sentences shorter. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Thanks for sharing your great workflow.

  • Victor

    Big fan of Dropbox here…and Scrivener. New iPad owner as well, and loving it.

    Now how do I…?

    Droptext to the rescue. Plain text editor that opens/saves to/from Dropbox. Copy/paste or even import into Scrivener.

  • John


    Thanks for the comment. I took a look at Droptext when it came out. Great concept, but it lacks the ability to search through all of your notes, as far as I can find. Elements is a similar app that looks great, but has the same issue.

  • Sudo

    Maybe coming a bit late to the party, but great and inspiring post on workflow. I have used my iPad as a ‘full fledged editor’ – i.e. I don’t lug my laptop anymore – since a couple a months back. Works wonderfully with the BT keyboard.

    I don’t think the drag/drop comment is an issue with Evernote, but that’s because I rarely use the mouse. Cmd+Shift+I in Scrivener, baby! ๐Ÿ™‚ Also, you can’t drag/drop things outa Scrivener.

    But I guess the main difference with my workflow is one of philosophy. I want to work in the cloud, not on the desktop. And in the way I work (we are all different, so this will work for some, and not for others) SimpleNote is not a cloud app, because its web interface is not rich enough compared to the local app, and/or it doesn’t support the de facto ‘cloud standards’ – Dropbox/Google Docs.

    Also, in my opinion, if the flow is dependent on more than one app, it’s a bit too convoluted. As a producer I work with once said: “If you use more than one GTD, slash project management app, you are probably not getting things done.” ๐Ÿ™‚ So how to be more cloudy (and thus more standard based, app independent) and have fewer steps, IMHO:

    1. Well, I have only one step, Dropbox. ๐Ÿ™‚ Get yourself a gethabilis account, and you can upload any document to your Dropbox from your iPad.

    For instance, I write scripts, so I use Scripts Pro on the iPad and Scrivener on the laptops. Write, write upload and import to Scrivener. And, for those who doesn’t work two handed on the keyboard, since Dropbox obviously is a folder on you desktop, you can drag/drop from that folder into Scrivener.

    For capturing, I can use anything. I found the SimpleNote interface not improved enough on the native Notes and use Carbonfin Outliner instead. And Habilis.

    I’ve tried Elements, and it’s brilliant and I don’t understand the ‘not searchable’ comment, because since they live in your Dropbox folder you can search and do smart folders on them. But maybe that comment for in the app itself.

    But if you have the Dropbox app on the padular device and QuickOffice, you can open any file in any app and then upload with Habilis when you have edited. With the Habilis flow, I can even capture stuff in long hand, which I do a lot. Snap with the iPony and mail to Habilis. Of course, Evernote is also great with handwritten text, since it makes it searchable.

    But one of the greatest things with my simplified workflow, is that I can even use Mail on the iPony/iPad for capture. But I guess the real benefits are: a) fewer steps, b) no desktop dependecy, c) use any app you like on the iPad (well, that’s also true for the desktop, since you can use this for other apps than Scrivener, d) no non-intuitive file names with ‘qqq’:s or anything to make it work.

  • Sudo

    Just in: Scrivener 2.0 syncs directly with SimpleNote, have a look at Keith’s demo here:

    Simplifies workflow by a great number of steps, but a bit sad that he choose SimpleNote which isn’t the greatest note app on the padster.

  • Sudo

    And today PlainText became available on iPad and Iphone. Beautiful, un-cluttered text editor with Dropbox sync!

  • byjohn

    Love it. Thanks for pointing it out!

  • Grant

    A new app which is better than Plaintext and unique in the fact it has it’s own custom keyboard allowing user to jump to the beginning of a word or end as well as the ability to move cursor back and forward. It has Dropbox synching as well.

    It is a simple word processor. I guess it’s draw backs are it doesn’t have a search function, font is locked in as typewriter, no ability to change font or size.

    Note: Grant confirmed via email that he is referring to IAWriter.

  • John Chandler

    Thanks for the comment. You didn’t mention which app? Elements or Writer, I assume, or something else?

    I prefer PlainText over Elements, and I haven’t bought Writer, but all of these apps are a matter of personal preference.

  • onflapp

    Perhaps some of you may find this:

    It is very functional iPad app called DNoteIt ( and its interface has been inspired by Notational Velocity and integrated markdown.

    It is actually intended to sync with big apps like Scrivener or Tinderbox

  • Dan

    Late, but oh well. Great post. Some strange comments. Don’t see this kind of defensiveness outside of political forums usually. LOL!

    I actually use a very similar workflow, and today it is even better than it was when you wrote this. nvALT is awesome to use with Simplenote and allows me to brain dump, jot down ideas and make notes effortlessly anywhere. nvALT is amazing for multimarkdown (another advantage I don’t think many readers here are grasping, regardless of whether it applies to them or not ). And of course, anything I want in Scrivener gets there easily in a couple of ways.

    I disagree with the person suggesting that more than one or two tools is too much. First, it is subjective. Second, I don’t necessarily want all of my writing in Scrivener. I like being able to dump into nvALT, or my other favorite, ByWord, and then move into Scrivener when I am ready to start an actual project.

    I try to love Evernote, but years after adopting it it remains glitchy and cumbersome. One thing gets fixed and another seems to break. My desktop client quit 6 times today while working on exporting individual notes. Ugh. A hour ago an audio note froze and required a force quit. Just random frustrations. I lov the concept, and I try to se it, but I have a hard time sticking with it. I also don’t like the file format and the limited export options. Oh well.

    Anyways, it was encouraging to read your post. You should consider doing one for this year, if you haven’t yet. Once I hit post I will go search just in case.

    • John Chandler

      Thanks for the comments. My workflow has slowly morphed from this, which I realized earlier today as I made a more notable change, so it may be time for an update.

  • One note to put on this comment chain: Keith Blount, creator of Scrivener, has hired an iOS developer; his company has been actively developing an iPad/iPhone version of Scrivener for what sounds like the last six months or so. They have been actively soliciting comments from users on what features they would like on their website forums: go go and select the forum “Scrivener for iPad/iPhone โ€” What Do You Want?”.

    Workflow would obviously be simplified if a single brand of software could be used to capture/import data and perform writing.

    These guys will take a while to make the iOS product, but I think it will be excellent. The best way to help them in the mean time is to tell college students and other writers that there’s an excellent alternative to Word for creating papers.

  • Philip

    Good workflow. Check out IndexCards. Works on iPad. Mimics Scrivs approach, in that each card is like a part or section of the Scriv document. And, best of all, synchs via Dropbox and is importable to Scriv.

    My workflow:
    1. draft ideas, one per card in IndexCard
    2. add text or draft ideas to each card
    3. move cards around, easy to organize and change later
    4. synch to dropbox, save as index card format
    5. go to Mac
    6. create new project by importing IndexCards file
    7. make edits, write, update, do what you want or need to in Scriv
    8. Synch back out
    9. hit the road, the coffee shop, the airport
    10. synch in IndexCards
    11. edit, repeat.

    works very nicely!

    now, to find a way to get images into or hooked to the right place in Scriv… ideas?